A Separate War and Other Stories
by Joe Haldeman
Review by Rich Lynch
Ace Hardcover Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0441014070
Date: 01 August, 2006 List Price $23.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
There can be no argument that Joe Haldeman is one of the most prolific and talented writers of speculative fiction. In the nearly four decades he has been writing and selling fiction, he has won the Hugo and Nebula Award each five times. Five of the ten have been for shorter works of fiction, and even though Haldeman perhaps is best known as a novelist, it is still a fair statement that he is a master of the short story, novelette, and novella. Therefore, it is an Event-with-a-capital-E when a new collection of Haldeman's stories is published.
This new collection brings together fifteen previously uncollected works, including his very first published story, "Out of Phase" from 1969, which describes the consequences of letting a shape-changing adolescent nearly omnipotent alien loose on a foreign world to find his own way. It's a terrific story, very entertaining, and still holds together well more than three decades after it was written. In an afterword to the story, Haldeman explained that it had not been reprinted in earlier collections because he had been intending it as the first section of a planned future novel – except that he couldn't. It turned out the main character was too similar to one that appears in his 2004 novel, Camouflage, so Haldeman abandoned the plan with the realization that "I had unconsciously plagiarized myself!"
Another gem in this collection is "For White Hill," a novella about the future of art and the transcendence of love over the end of existence. It is an extraordinary story, certainly one of my ten all-time favorites. Haldeman based it on Shakespeare's sonnet #14, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" Each of the fourteen sections of the novella is based on a line of the sonnet.
There are some other interesting stories in the collection, but nothing nearly as splendid as these two. Unlike Haldeman's previous collections, A Separate War and Other Stories mostly represents stories written specifically in response to requests from friends and editors. For instance, "A Separate War" was written in 1998 for Robert Silverberg's Far Horizons anthology, where writers were asked to revisit classics of the genre they had created and add new stories in those universes. The result was a companion piece to the ending of Haldeman's award-winning novel The Forever War, where he followed the storyline of one of the other characters in the novel to let us find out what happened to her.
This is the first collection of Haldeman's stories in a decade, and it is possible it might be another decade or more before the next one appears. In recent years, he has split his time between Boston, where he teaches fall semesters at M.I.T., and his home in Florida where he writes novels. His writing style is that he prefers not to interrupt teaching or working on a novel to write a short story, so he been producing only a very few works of short fiction a year lately. A new Haldeman collection, especially after such a long wait, creates high expectations, but a few of the stories did not seem to me all that memorable, perhaps because of the constriction of being written for special requests of editors. For instance, "Diminished Chord," a short-short originally written for a Renaissance Faire magazine about a musical instrument that has an aphrodisiac effect on listeners, did not, er, resonate very much with me in part because it stopped rather than ended. "Memento Mori," a vignette about a nanotechnology-induced rebirth of sorts, was written for the editor of Amazing Stories in response to a request for a story of exactly 1,000 words and also "illustrated" a painting that was used on the cover of the magazine. The result seemed somewhat force-fitted. And "Brochure," which appeared in the science journal Nature, seems more of an idea for a story than an actual story.
As a result, I do not think this is Haldeman's best collection, but there is still more than enough here to satisfy most readers of science fiction. As Connie Willis wrote in her introduction to the collection, one of Haldeman's strengths as a writer is his unconventional outlook on the human condition: "He writes about traditionally science fictional subjects … but he employs them in uniquely nontraditional ways to explore what it means to be human in a variety of identity-splitting environments." This collection is filled with many such idea-filled stories. Hang on for the ride. You will not be bored.